My interview with John Larson

John Larson is a student at Portland State who’s just started a radio podcast called “Upstream.” The first guest was Asra Nomani (see below), and I was the second—interviewed just yesterday. You can hear the hour by clicking below. As always, I can’t bear to hear myself, but I know we discussed free will, the Authoritarian Left, evolution, and the Usual Suspects. Best of luck to John with his endeavor.

To hear Asra’s interview, click here. Once again I’m unwittingly conjugated with her, as we were on the MSNBC interview about whether ISIS is “real” Islam.


  1. Posted May 5, 2016 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Listening now. Sound bites (mostly quotes) from first 15 minutes:

    – “We’re not willing to animalize ourselves”

    – “Human exceptionalism is pervasive”

    – “The laws of physics apply to our brains”

    – “Everybody in their hearts feels like they are agents with choices”

    – “Free will is incompatible with the laws of physics: we cannot make choices”

    – “Our actions are all determined by the laws of physics”

    – “We cannot step outside of those factors [gene and environment] and influence our decisions”

    – “We are all compelled to something, everything”

    – Valid reasons for punishment: rehabilitation, deterrence, and sequestration

    – Unenlightened reasons for punishment: retribution/revenge (like with capital punishment)

    – “Recidivism rate in Norway 5% compared to like 75% in the US”

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 6, 2016 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      Off the top of the head, anyone know anything about computer-driven transcription software? Particularly stuff that can deal with shouting Glaswegians?

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted May 6, 2016 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

        Answering my own question :

        Off the top of the head, anyone know anything about computer-driven transcription software?

        , a recent Wired article isn’t terribly optimistic sounding. On the other hand, there are signs of developments. The CMU page for the Sphinx system indicates news posts as recently as 23 April, and 6000 people caring enough to vote on which language model to devote more attention to. That’s a reasonably good level of activity.

  2. leonkrier
    Posted May 5, 2016 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Regarding “Free Will,” a question I’ve been wrestling with for some time is the following: how is it that in a deterministic universe which includes the human brain, determinism produces the phenomenon of having options and choices (albeit an illusion)? Why doesn’t determinism produced an awareness/consciousness of being determined? I have a glue or two as to why, but I would appreciate what you and others think about these questions.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted May 5, 2016 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

      I am not sure how to answer, except that our consciousness, wherein lies our illusion of choice, is always a little behind the curve of what is really happening. It is not only belatedly aware of stuff going on outside of ourselves after anything has happened, but it is also only aware of the ‘choices’ that it has ‘made’ after we have already committed to the choice. It really cooks my noodle thinking about that. But I am aware of thinking about it after I have already thought it….

    • peepuk
      Posted May 6, 2016 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      “Why doesn’t determinism produced an awareness/consciousness of being determined?”

      I don’t think this is true: people seem to have both compatibilist and incompatibilist intuitions.

      See f.i.

      If we look at the history of our species the illusion of freewill is used as a tool to manipulate and justify our behavior.

    • Vaal
      Posted May 6, 2016 at 7:34 pm | Permalink


      My answer to your question is based on what I’ve argued here before. (Hence, regulars can avert their eyes…)

      “how is it that in a deterministic universe which includes the human brain, determinism produces the phenomenon of having options and choices (albeit an illusion)?”

      Because it’s not an “illusion.” Even under determinism, we really are choice-making agents, and we still reason about which choices to make. Further, the mode of thinking when we are engaged in deciding what to do is NOT illusory: it’s a sort of “if/then” reasoning by which we can apprehend truths.

      Take the example of driving home, and your gas is low and there won’t be enough to get you to work tomorrow. You have the choice of getting gas now, on the way home, or leaving it until tomorrow morning. What is the process like when deciding what to do? It’s going to be “based on the things I’m capable of” then “IF I do X, Y will likely be the result, but IF I do Y, then Z will be the result.” E.g. “If I don’t get gas, my car won’t make it to work.”
      That’s apprehending a truth. And “IF I get gas now, I won’t have to get it tomorrow morning.” That’s thinning another true thought. And “IF I don’t get gas now, I’ll have to get it tomorrow morning, in rush hour.” That is yet again thinking another true thing about your situation. None of this is “illusory.” As you do this, you search your desires and goals – which action will fulfill the desire you have? If you have a stronger desire to just get home as fast as possible, then it’s true to think “Leaving it until the morning will fulfill my desire to get home faster tonight.” So you think about your desires, which one you feel like fulfilling the most, and then act on truths most likely to fulfill the desire. No “untrue” thoughts (insofar as you are not mistaken).

      You can say the feeling of being able to take “either” route comes from the experience of mentally searching this space of possibilities, before hang committed to an action – “freely” exploring options. No the obvious urge from incompatibilists is to say “but it’s not really TRUE you could have taken either action.”
      But the point is, the feeling of options being open isn’t, I argue, derived from incorporating some nonsensical “I am free from all causation and physics” because that is a useless input into the system and never features into our actual reasoning at the time.
      Rather, the feeling of freedom derives from thinking true thoughts we use to search the if/then space in order to make decisions.

      Why would a deterministic universe produce this way of thinking?
      That seems pretty easy to me: it’s the only way thinking could make sense in a deterministic universe (and I’m not sure what type of thinking would occur in a non-deterministic universe…might be the same). Abstractions, not untruths but abstractions, would be necessary conceptual tools in any way of reasoning I can imagine.
      We think of ourselves not as some frozen entity in one point in the universe, but as a construct through time, so we START with an abstraction that libertarian free will doesn’t really explain very well. And we use generalizations about “what we are capable of” combined with generalizations of “how the world seems to work in similar situations” in order to reason true understandings about how to navigate the world.

      There, I’ve re-stated my position for 2016 and won’t have to for another year 🙂


      • Vaal
        Posted May 6, 2016 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

        I am “determined” not to make so many typos next time.

  3. Posted May 6, 2016 at 4:24 am | Permalink

    Two new birds (books) in the early phases of development.



  4. Posted May 6, 2016 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    I love listening to podcasts while I workout. I think stitcher is my favorite app of all time. If you haven’t checked it out yet, you should listen to Jerry’s talk with Gad Saad, the video is available on youtube. It’s fascinating stuff.

  5. veroxitatis
    Posted May 6, 2016 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    A fascinating discussion, particularly on the topics of free will and determinism. It seemed from the way that you spoke, Professor that this was a subject which had occupied your thoughts for quite some time.I am wondering whether there may be earlier threads which set out your thinking in greater depth than was possible in the podcast? If so, could you identify or put them up again? I would also be interested to have your thoughts (if not already in these threads) on Roger Penrose’s work on these matters in “Shadows of the mind” and the earlier book “The Emperor’s New Mind” (1997 & 1994) Penrose postulates that consciousness may be in some way mediated through quantum processes without, I may say, much of what could be called proof. Has Penrose done any more work on this over the past 20 years to your knowledge? Are you aware of any rigorous rebuttal of his thoughts, either in book or article form?

  6. Vaal
    Posted May 6, 2016 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for letting us know about this interview Jerry. I look forward to listening over the weekend.

  7. Posted May 7, 2016 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Did I just hear you call your website a “blog”? (47:00) What it the world coming to???

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